Women’s Classic Connection

Charlotte Vowden riding with her late grandfather in a 1960 MGA Roadster.

In my work on women in various car cultures, I have discovered that women often develop an interest in cars through the help of male family members. Working in the garage alongside fathers, uncles, and brothers creates a familiarity with all things automotive that often grows into a serious involvement with cars in later years. Dads in particular instill automotive knowledge in their young daughters as a means of protection – from unscrupulous car dealers and automotive repair shops. They teach them how to make simple repairs to avoid being stranded on the side of the road. Husbands, on the other hand, often instill a love for cars in the hope that their wives will share their interest and participate alongside them in auto-related activities.

However, many women with a car-crazy family member don’t develop an enthusiasm for automobiles until that individual passes. After inheriting a classic classic car from a father or grandfather, women must decide whether to put the vehicle up for sale or to keep and maintain it. Those who choose the later find they must master the peculiarities of driving an antique machine. In the process, they often become full-fledged enthusiasts, joining car clubs, learning restoration processes, and submersing themselves in automotive history. I met some of these women while conducting research on various women and car projects. A recent article in the Sunday Times features stories of numerous women – many similar to those I encountered – who found themselves the unlikely owners of classic MGA Roadsters, Austin Healeys, and Porsches. 

The women interviewed in “Women with Drive” speak of how taking the wheel of an old MG Midget or VW convertible provides a connection to a family member who has passed on. They admit to how the mechanics of these aging vehicles originally terrified them; the women wondered how they would ever conquer such complicated and unfamiliar machines. Yet, they found that spending time in the automobile, discovering all of its idiosyncrasies, and emerging victorious after months of intensive driving provided a means to confront their grief and move past a personal loss. It allowed to remain connected in spirit to a dad or favorite grandfather. Remarked the owner of an inherited 1936 Austin Healey, “this car is part of my dad that I still get to hang on to.”

Some of those interviewed for the article spoke of how they discovered a latent love of old cars after a male partner introduced them to the world of classic automobiles. In my own research in women and muscle cars, I note how men often encourage an interest in American muscle – and often acquire and restore a vehicle of their spouse’s choosing – as a way to alleviate guilt [over spending so much time and money on cars!] as well as to strengthen the relationship through a shared interest. While my research took place primarily in Southeastern Michigan, the Sunday Times article includes stories from women all over Europe, demonstrating that a female interest in cars, while often under the radar, is worldwide. 

What the Sunday Times article attempts to convey, and which I have endeavored to promote in my scholarship, is that despite the common perception of female motorists, women with an interest in cars exist in all facets of automotive endeavors and activities. While one may find it surprising that women connect to cars in a multitude of ways, it is only because we have been conditioned to believe that an affinity toward automobiles is present in only half the population. Although women’s relationship to cars may differ from that of men, it doesn’t follow that it is less legitimate. I thank the Sunday Times for this article, and for its dedication to cultivating further discussions about women and cars.

Review of ‘Machines of Youth: America’s Car Obsession’

As a scholar, albeit of the independent variety, I am sometimes asked to contribute to research in various ways. A little over a year ago The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth asked if I would write a book review on a car-and-youth related publication for an upcoming issue. As I am always open to a new opportunity, I gladly accepted, particularly since I had already purchased the book and was planning on reading it anyway. The review was recently published in the JHCY Winter 2020 issue. Machines of Youth: America’s Car Obsession by historian Gary Cross is an interesting and in-depth look at the various American youth car cultures of the 20th century. For those who may be curious about the book, I have included my review here.

Machines of Youth: America’s Car Obsession
By Gary S. Cross
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018. 227 pp. Paper $32.50, cloth $97.50.

Machines of Youth is a colorful chronology of American youth car cultures from the early automotive age to the present day. Relying on an eclectic assemblage of sources – interviews, print media, automotive publications, popular culture, and personal anecdotes – historian Gary Cross has constructed a compelling examination of a rarely researched subject and subculture. Although the book stands on its own as an in-depth exploration of young men’s involvement and fascination with cars over the past century, it also serves as a rarely examined but timely analysis of white working-class youth culture in twentieth-century America. In Machines of Youth, Cross takes us beyond the scope of traditional automotive histories to investigate the teenage cultures that evolved along its margins. To young working-class men, Cross argues, car culture was not only a community in which automotive craftsmanship and knowledge could be developed and shared, but also served as an important source of masculinity, autonomy, individualism, self-expression, and rebellion.

Cross skillfully intertwines automobile history with the teenage cultures it generated. Each chapter introduces cars of a particular generation and the young men who became engaged, if not obsessed, with the growing automotive phenomenon. Some of the stops along the way include the early auto age and young men’s growing preoccupation with the gasoline-powered automobile, the 1930s customizing and “souping up” craze, the 1940s hot rod wars, the 1950s and 60s cruising and parking culture, and the Fast and Furious era of Japanese “rice burners”. Cross also makes an intriguing detour into the familial and community Latino car culture of “low and slow”. At each juncture Cross delves into how a particular culture came to be, considers how and why boys became involved, investigates the influence of club life and the media, considers how the subcultures were regarded by the public, and discusses the efforts made to suppress, disregard, or encourage young men’s automotive activities. Cross concludes the book by considering the state of car culture today, the role of nostalgia in its maintenance, as well as whether there remains enough automotive interest for its continuance into the future.

Although car cultures attracted teens from all walks of life – e.g. baby boomer muscle car enthusiasts and middle-class hippies who tinkered with aging VW Beetles – Cross is particularly interested in the role the automobile played in the lives of white working-class youth. In the chapter devoted to “greasers and their rods,” Cross examines how cars gave these “marginal” high school boys an opportunity to define themselves apart from the mainstream white middle-class population. As the author notes, while middle-class teens on the “college prep” track were likely to drive cars owned or purchased by their parents, working-class youth in the vocational curriculum took pride in working on their own jalopies. Thus, as Cross writes, “the customized car offered a token of dignity to a group that had always been subordinate, but which in the mid-twentieth century was steadily losing ground” (99). Cross’s examination of white working-class youth is particularly timely given the current political climate, which has witnessed a growing sentiment of discontent and disaffection among rural white working-class men.

Machines of Youth is a welcome and important addition to existing automotive scholarship. Although much has been written on the history of the automobile, only a handful of scholars (e.g. Karen Lumsden, Amy Best, Brenda Bright, Sarah Redshaw) have investigated specific car cultures. And while Cross presents an engaging examination of the history of young men’s involvement with cars, the volume’s strength comes from its unique focus on class (in addition to gender and race) as an influential and crucial component of American youth car cultures. What the book lacks, however, is diversity in research location. Although the west coast was certainly an important breeding ground for youth car cultures, there is a little too much emphasis on the California car scene. While other locations are mentioned, the tone of the book suggests the majority of youth automotive activity occurred in the Golden State. Cross also fails to lay out his methodology in the introductory section. Consequently, it is up to the reader to piece the research sources together chapter by chapter.

Machines of Youth is certain to be embraced by aging men of a particular generation who grew up with a passion for cars and see themselves in its pages. For auto historians, Cross’s astute analysis of young men’s engagement with the automobile provides a social context to the ebb and flow of automotive popularity over the past century. However, scholars of youth cultures will find Cross’s work fascinating whether or not they have an interest in cars. The focus on white working-class teens is not only engrossing and enlightening in its own right, but has particular relevance during this disquieting time in our nation’s political history.

Do you have a favorite car book? What makes an automotive book worth reading? Your suggestions are welcome!

Memories Car Show

Best in Class @ Memories Car Show

Although I have spent many summers at car shows conducting research, occasionally I take one of my two classic cars [whichever one is running] to a local car show. I tend to like shows that are community-oriented and are in the evening to avoid the hot summer days [and even hotter old engines.] One of my favorites is the Memories Car Show held each August at St. Mary Magdalen Church in Brighton MI. There are usually about 200 cars in attendance of every make, model, and description. Although cars shows remain male-dominated, there were a number of female owned autos on display. This year I decided to take my 1949 Ford to show off its new paint job. Its shiny exterior must have done the trick, because it won best in its class. It was a beautiful evening, and it is always enjoyable to look at the cars and to chat with fellow car enthusiasts.

Are you a woman who shows her car? What do you show and why do you show it? You are welcome to share your experiences in the comments section.

Woodward Dream Cruise

Ford Bronco exhibit at the Woodward Dream Cruise

The big annual car event in the metropolitan Detroit area is the Woodward Dream Cruise. The cruise originated in 1995 as an effort to raise funds for a local children’s soccer field. While the initial expectation was 30,000 spectators, the cruise exceeded expectations, drawing over 250,000 its first year. It has grown exponentially ever since, now drawing over 40,000 cars and 1.5 million visitors.

Although the cruise is technically a one-day event, folks line Woodward Avenue in folding chairs every evening the week prior to view the bumper to bumper parade of cars from the 1950s and 1960s. My husband and I were part of that parade Friday night, but opted to be spectators on Saturday.

The Woodward Dream Cruise is not only a parade of cars, but also a collection of car shows along its 16-mile loop. One of the newest additions was a Ford Bronco show. Folks brought their vintage Broncos from all over the country; some were ‘survivors,’ while others had been modified to the owner’s specifications. The Bronco has become popular with Millennials; it was nice to see younger people involved in the hobby. There were also many female owners in the group. As I have been contemplating a project focused on female Jeep owners, perhaps it would be worthwhile to expand it to women who own any type of off road vehicle, including the Ford Bronco.

Are you a woman with a Jeep or off-road vehicle? Why did you choose this particular type of automobile? You are welcome to share your experiences in the comments section.